Shot and blinded by a rubber bullet at the age of ten in Derry in 1972; his uncle was shot and killed by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday* in the same year; a journey of forgiveness and compassion, he is now incredibly a friend of the soldier, Charles Innes, who shot him; and, at least in some senses, the most incredible experience of all, he is a personal friend of a world famous spiritual leader: the Dalai Lama.
In order to understand such an extraordinary story it is important to give some context, albeit limited, not only to Richard's personal story, but also to the times that he grew up in as a young boy: the political conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970's and 80's. Richard grew up in the working-class Creggan estate. It was, and still is, a predominately catholic area of the city-the conflict was, at least to some extent, delineated by a Protestant/Catholic divide, but there is also a political, cultural and to some extent a social divide as well. However, slowly and tentatively, those divisions are beginning to heal.
There were riots, shootings, bombings practically every day, it was normal Richard told me, and there was antagonism between the local Irish Catholic population and the British army. And, particularly after the events of Bloody Sunday, there was outright hatred and fear of the British army, and no doubt it was reciprocated by the soldiers.
The 4th of May, 1972 was a bright, sunny spring day. Richard was on his way home from school. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary going on that day, at least not by the standards of Derry at that time. A British soldier, who was inside a semi-permanent military installation, fired a rubber bullet into Richard's face from about ten feet; it hit him on the bridge of his nose. Richard has been blind ever since. In one traumatic event his life changed forever, and as he says himself, his journey began-and, forty years afterwards, he's still on that journey.
Richard came to consciousness on a table in his school some time later. As Richard says himself, when he talks about the events of the day it's as if he's ‘'talking about someone else'', that is, he has a sense of detachment, as if he's looking at it from above or beside it. Despite the time that has passed the memories are still vivid in Richard's head, and so is the moment of acceptance of his blindness. His brother Noel told him a few weeks later that he would never see again and ‘'right away I accepted it''. How, I asked him, can you accept such an unfair twist of fate, especially as a young boy? ,
Perhaps acceptance has to do with age he told me, that is, if he had been a bit older things may have been different, ten year old boys don't think too far into the future-perhaps they don't realize what they are going to miss. Also, importantly, Richard states that he was fortunate: he came from a loving family, a warm tight-knit community, despite everything he still had choices and opportunities, and finally and perhaps the most important reason for his sense of acceptance, he had no sense of residual anger or bitterness, a state of affairs for which he gives great credit to his parents.
‘'My parents were peaceful and non-violent people, my Mother lost her brother, my uncle Gerard McKinney, shot dead on Bloody Sunday, and then, a few months later her son was blinded by a rubber bullet''. Remarkably, despite the trauma of such experiences, Richard told me that he never once heard bitter or angry words from his parents. But of course, emotionally and psychologically his parents and family struggled, and worried for their son and brother's future.
*Bloody Sunday was a massacre of ordinary civilians in Derry, Northern Ireland by the British army in January 1972. 26 people were shot, 13 died of their wounds almost immediately, and one man died a few months afterwards. In 2010, the British Prime Minister, after an extensive inquiry into the killings, apologized on behalf of the British Government. All the victims are now regarded as being innocent.